WEST ORANGE, NJ - Last week, 20 Golda Och Academy (GOA) juniors and seniors touched down in New Orleans kicking off the 9thAnnual New Orleans Relief Mission. The students headed straight to Myrtle C. Thibodeaux Elementary, GOA’s partner school in Westwego, LA, bringing the book donations they collected from home and volunteering with the students. Spread out among the classrooms, the GOA students had the chance to work with children on math, spelling and vowel sounds. Some even taught them the story of Chanukah and how to play the dreidel game.
GOA senior Elijah Rockman admitted that he was not expecting the visit to be so difficult. “To see what they have—or don’t have—was extremely sad. It made us truly appreciate what we have. We all wanted to do so much more for them.”
The group was also pleased to see that the funds raised for Myrtle C. Thibodeaux Elementary would be used to buy school supplies and warm clothing for families who cannot afford to buy these items themselves.
Day one also included a trip to the NOLA Green Roots Wise Words community garden— a new addition to the mission this year where students literally helped turn over a garden.
“Nothing was planted when we got there,” said Rockman. “When we left, an entire garden was planted that will feed about 100 to 200 people at the food banks.”
“We constantly strive to keep our trip to New Orleans relevant and engaging,” said Navah Kogen, coordinator of experiential education at GOA. “The addition of volunteering with the NOLA Green Roots community garden movement helped our students to more fully understand the way the greater New Orleans community has been rebuilding and re-envisioning itself in the years following Hurricane Katrina, and the role that we can play in that process.”
Prior to arriving in New Orleans, GOA senior Rebecca Hersch was prepared to see the devastation, but couldn’t truly understand it until seeing it first-hand.
“It’s hard to connect to a tragedy such as Katrina until you see the damage, even 10 years later,” she said. “It’s hard to look at the lots of empty land and realize a house was once there but no longer is.”
To help fill those empty lots, GOA students got to work with AmeriCorps volunteers through Habitat for Humanity by building a house in New Orleans East-Gentilly. They did everything from hammering in siding to putting up Tyvek. They even met with Miss Deborah, a future owner of a different Habitat for Humanity home who, like all potential homeowners, must work a specific number of hours at one or more worksites. They also met a Katrina survivor who lost his granddaughter and mother in the hurricane.
“His story was so tragic, yet his positivity was so inspiring,” said GOA junior Mira Blecherman.
“The New Orleans trip is exactly what our school strives for in making tikkun olam (repairing the world) an integral part of our experiential programming,” said Jordan Herskowitz, GOA’s director of student life. “Our students get real-life experience doing hands-on work and see results right in front of their eyes. This service-learning is unlike anything our students experience in the classroom."
Although the trip was heavily focused on community service, the group also found time to experience the culture of the city, eating famous beignets at Cafe du Monde, walking around the French District and attending a live jazz concert at the historic Preservation Hall. They also met with GOA alumni at Tulane as well as the rabbi from Shir Chadash, the only conservative synagogue in New Orleans. Yet, after an intense three-day physically and emotionally draining
Mission, the students returned home stressing the resilient culture and the gratitude from the communities they met with.
“I still have bumps and bruises,” said Rockman, “but it was all worth it.”